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Offender Management and Treatment - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:12 pm on 3rd October 2019.

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Photo of Lord Ramsbotham Lord Ramsbotham Crossbench 1:12 pm, 3rd October 2019

My Lords, one has only to read recent reports from the quality assurers of the management and treatment of offenders in prison and the community—the chief inspectors of prisons and probation—to realise that all is not well with how they are currently being conducted. Quite apart from the number of prisons that are in special measures, the appalling reoffending rate, the wilful cuts to staff numbers, estimated to amount to 80,000 years of operational experience, the amount of violence against staff, the prevalence of drugs, the amount of self-harm and suicide, the number of prisoners with untreated mental health problems, and the number who spend all day locked up in their cell because there is no purposeful activity to occupy them should all sound alarm bells to any Government who take seriously their responsibilities for protecting the public.

As far as the management and treatment of offenders in the community are concerned, those involved in sentencing have lost confidence in how community sentences, the only alternative to custody, are being delivered. What is extremely concerning is that this situation has got worse, rather than better, over recent years.

Any regret that I may have had about tabling this Motion was eliminated by the Prime Minister’s announcement last month that he proposed to invest £2.5 billion to provide another 10,000 prison places. The dictionary definition of a strategy is the projection and direction of a campaign. The task of the prison and probation services, to protect the public by their management of offenders, is akin to any other campaign in that it needs a strategy. The absence of any to which the Prime Minister’s investment can be related reminded me of the berating I once received from a senior Home Office official, who said, “I wish you would stop talking about strategy. We don’t need a strategy; all we need is strategic direction”. When I asked her what she meant, she replied, “Top down, of course”.

In the 24 years I have been involved with the criminal justice system, there have been 11 Secretaries of State and 13 Ministers responsible for prisons and probation. All have given top-down direction not related to any strategy, with 278 policy undertakings on prisons alone since 2016. 1 suspect that Jack Straw would claim that his introduction of the National Offender Management Service—and Kenneth Clarke and Chris Grayling would claim that their rehabilitation revolutions—had strategic intent. But the fact that they have all been discontinued shows how fragile they were as meaningful, long-term strategies. Without an overall strategy that has been costed so that Ministers can know the size and implications of any shortfall, it is impossible to give policy direction to operational staff.

The only time in recent years when there has been an attempt at a strategy, certainly as far as prisons are concerned, was when the then Home Secretary Kenneth Baker, now the noble Lord, Lord Baker of Dorking, published a White Paper on prisons, Custody, Care and Justice, in September 1991. This set out 12 ways ahead for the Prison Service, none of which has been implemented. White Papers used to be carefully researched statements of government policy. In this case the Home Office was able to draw on the masterly report of my noble and learned friend Lord Woolf on the causes of the worst riots in prison history, which had taken place the year before.

Comparing its content with the only other White Paper on prisons, the rushed Prison Safety and Reform, published in November 2016, which contained intent but no direction, is to compare chalk with cheese. As I have called on every Secretary of State in my time to study and update what was laid down, perhaps I may remind noble Lords of the Baker “ways ahead”. These were: to improve necessary security measures; to improve co-operation with other services and institutions by working closely with the probation service and by membership of a national forum and area committees; to increase delegation of responsibility and accountability to all levels, with clear leadership and a published annual statement of objectives; and to improve the quality of jobs for staff; to recognise the status and particular requirements of unconvicted prisoners; to provide active and relevant programmes for all prisoners; to provide a code of standards for conditions and activities in prisons, which would be used to set improvement targets in annual contracts made between prison governors and their area managers; to improve relationships with prisoners, including a statement of facilities for each prisoner— sentence plans, consultations, reasons for decisions—and access to an independent appeal body for grievances and disciplinary decisions; to provide access to sanitation at all times for all prisoners; to end overcrowding; and to divide the larger wings of prisons into smaller, more manageable units, wherever possible; and, finally, to develop community prisons, which would involve the gradual realignment of the prison estate into geographically coherent groups, serving most prisoners within that area.

Since Kenneth Baker’s day, other than NOMS and the rehabilitation revolutions, there has been no attempt at an overall strategy. The main point at issue has been whether the emphasis should be on punishment, as populists advocate, or rehabilitation, as public protectors advocate. In wishing that this issue could be resolved once and for all, I also wish that the management and treatment of offenders were removed from party politics, along with the temptation for anyone to be seen as tougher than another. Lawbreakers will have to be dealt with whichever party is in power, and it is the responsibility of all Governments to ensure that that any resulting sentences, in prison or the community, are properly resourced.

I have often thought that the aim that Tony Blair gave the criminal justice system when he became Prime Minister in 1997—to protect the public by preventing crime—should have been, “To protect the public by preventing re-crime or reoffending”. In line with the then ethos of the Probation Service, “Advise, Assist, Befriend”, and the Prison Service’s statement of purpose:

“It is our duty to keep securely all those committed by the courts, to treat them with humanity, and help them to live useful and law-abiding lives in prison and on release”,

this could be turned into a joint and positive aim for both services: “It is our duty to help all those committed by the courts to live useful and law-abiding lives, with the qualifications that they must be treated with humanity and not allowed to escape from prison or breach the terms of their supervision order in the community”.

There are three logical steps to achieving that, in both prisons and probation. First, a detailed assessment must be made of why a person has not been living a useful and law-abiding life thus far, including education and work skills, healthcare needs, criminological behaviour, and risk to staff, other offenders and the general public. By axing the prisons part of the Prisons and Courts Bill, which had started its legislative progress through the other place before the last election, Theresa May removed a priceless opportunity to have certain assessments made statutory. Viable sentence plans for every individual can be made only following full assessments.

The second step is the implementation of sentence plans, prioritised according to the severity of the symptom and the length of sentence. The third, as far as prisoners are concerned, is their transition into the community, and, as far as those on community sentences are concerned, ensuring that they know where they can come back to for any advice or help. That could form the basis of a strategy.

Whenever an issue of public policy required thorough examination and the Government were not committed to a definite policy, the task used to be entrusted to an invited group of persons from outside the relevant departments, such as a royal commission. The last Royal Commission on Criminal Justice reported in July 1993, since when all structural examinations have been conducted in-house, with all the known imperfections of that process. Frankly, with such a long record of failure, and because existing practices need to be questioned, I do not think that Ministry of Justice officials are the right people to carry out this task. There cannot be a single aspect of imprisonment or probation that has not been the subject of a report by a quality assurer or other expert, whose thousands of recommendations have been studiously ignored by the Ministry of Justice. I hope that an outside inquiry would examine these, and take an objective view of two managerial changes that I have long advocated.

The first is the establishment of a ministerially chaired executive committee responsible for the overall management and treatment of offenders, in prisons and the community, whose four executive members would be the directors-general of the prison and probation services, and the chairmen of the Youth Justice Board and a women’s justice board that I would form. Secondly, every business, hospital or school should have named people responsible and accountable for particular activities. Ever since suspending my inspection of Holloway and finding that there was no director of women’s prisons, I have agitated for directors to be appointed for every type of prison and some types of prisoner, responsible for ensuring consistency, turning good practice somewhere into common practice everywhere and telling governors what to do, leaving how they do it up to them. Lack of direction is the principal cause of the performance of individual prisons yo-yoing so much over the years. Ministers would find life much easier if they could send for the person responsible and accountable and ask them why a certain thing was or was not happening.

Turning to the community, before he resigned as Justice Secretary, David Gauke took steps to undo a disastrous introduction of Chris Grayling’s by reuniting the probation service, one part of which had been privatised. In forcing through his Transforming Rehabilitation programme, Grayling wilfully ignored official advice that there was a more than 80% risk that affordability objectives could not be demonstrated or met and that an unacceptable drop in operational performance would lead to delivery failures. The Justice and Public Accounts Committees in the other place have both published devastatingly critical reports on transforming rehabilitation, as have the National Audit Office and the former Chief Inspector of Probation, Dame Glenys Stacey, who climaxed her criticism with a far-sighted final report in which she pointed out in great detail what needed reform and how to do it.

Although it can be given the same aim as prisons, probation needs a separate, carefully considered management structure, incorporating much more localism. Above all, because each part of the country is so different, commissioning of probation services must be localised. Of course probation must work closely with prisons because of its role in the release and rehabilitation of prisoners, but, because the majority of the offenders it is responsible for supervising have been given community sentences, it must work much more closely with courts, the police and local authorities. Having been so severely damaged, probation needs tender, loving and all-party care if it is to be made fit to play its vital role in the protection of the public.

I conclude by asking the Minister to recommend to the Secretary of State for Justice that an outside inquiry, akin to a royal commission, should be appointed as quickly as possible to recommend whether punishment or rehabilitation, which he told his party conference were not opposites, should be the basis of a binding strategy for the reform of the management and treatment of offenders in prison and the community. I beg to move.